THE inspiration for Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’, football’s ultimate rags to riches story, lay not on the park pitches of the capital as might be expected but Yorkshire.
Specifically, the city of Leeds, with Dave Bassett, the key figure behind the fairytale rise from the old Southern League to the summit of English football, revealing that the blueprint for the south London club’s success was Don Revie’s great side of the Seventies.
“I played against Leeds when Wimbledon were still in non-League,” said the 71-year-old when speaking to The Yorkshire Post this week following the publication of ‘The Crazy Gang’, a book he has co-authored with former Wimbledon captain Wally Downes.
“We played them twice in the FA Cup in 1975, drawing at Elland Road and then losing the replay at Selhurst Park. Wimbledon were an old-fashioned non-League side, full of characters, but the big thing is we could also look after ourselves. As, of course, could Leeds.
“I got one in on Joe Jordan but he got me back just before the end, giving me a real smack. (Billy) Bremner did the same on Selwyn Rice, splitting his (shin)pad.
“Leeds were better footballers but, over the two games, we did ourselves proud. What I most remember, though, is going away afterwards and thinking, ‘If I become a manager, I want Leeds to be the blueprint’.
“By that, I mean building a tightly-knit group on the field who backed each other up and were real competitors. Leeds could play as well. But what I also liked was how they were not afraid to have a go at each other. They were all so competitive and desperate to win.
“Against us, Johnny Giles received a pass from either Frank or Eddie Gray that was a bit short. It allowed one of our lads to go in and give him a clump. Gilesy went potty at his own team-mate. They had a right row, there and then, before getting on with the game. When I became Wimbledon manager, I wanted that same environment.”
After being part of the Dons team elected to the Football League in 1977, Bassett played for one season before moving on to the coaching staff at Plough Lane.
At first, he learned the ropes as Dario Gradi’s assistant before taking charge in 1981. His first three seasons saw the Dons yo-yo between the bottom two divisions courtesy of two promotions and a relegation before that cycle was broken by Wimbledon finishing as Third Division runners-up in 1983-84.
A season of stability followed in the second tier before, incredibly, the Dons reached the top flight in 1986. For 11 glorious days during the following autumn, the minnows looked down on Everton, Arsenal, Liverpool et al from the top of Division One.
Like Revie’s Leeds a decade or so earlier, Wimbledon polarised opinion. Football romantics loved them, the club’s meteoric rise – capped by the FA Cup triumph of 1988 – giving hope to every team in the land.
If Wimbledon, with their tatty stadium and cast-offs deemed not good enough or simply too much trouble by other clubs, could do it then anyone could.
Even Margaret Thatcher, hardly a fan of football judging by her Government’s attitude to the game, fell under the spell of the plucky underdogs from an area of the capital more synonymous with tennis and strawberries.
“I am not surprised by these achievements,” the Prime Minister told a CBI dinner in May, 1986. “After all, if we can sell Newcastle Brown to Japan, Bob Geldof can have us running around Hyde Park and if Wimbledon can make it to the First Division, there is surely no achievement beyond our reach.”
Others, though, were less enamoured. ‘The enemy of football’ was one tag that stuck to the Dons, while Gary Lineker once sniped that the best way to watch Wimbledon was on Ceefax. Ted Croker was even more sniffy, the secretary of the Football Association going so far as to question whether the Dons should be allowed to take their place in the top flight.
Not that this opprobrium bothered Bassett and his players. “We took it as a compliment,” he says. “Let’s face it, no-one gets upset at a team they beat every time.
“Unfortunately, though, that negativity has meant that the team’s achievements doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. The lads deserve better. They were a great bunch and great to manage.
“People might think, ‘Vinnie (Jones) or whoever must have been hard work’. But that just wasn’t the case. We’d have rows all the time but none of the Wimbledon lads were trouble.
“The only player I couldn’t get on with in my career was (Pierre) van Hooijdonk (at Nottingham Forest), he was unmanageable. As far from a team player as you could imagine. He was hard work, a total pain in the a***. He couldn’t be managed so, in the end, I just ignored him.”
After leaving Plough Lane for a short-lived stint with Watford, Bassett headed to Sheffield United.
He was unable to keep the Blades in Division Two after taking charge in January, 1988, but back-to-back promotions subsequently saw top-flight football return to Bramall Lane after a 14-year absence.
Recreating a new ‘Crazy Gang’ in the Steel City was always going to be a tall order, though Bassett admits there were similarities in how he went about the job.
“In the book, Glyn Hodges likened Sheffield United to a Wimbledon ‘Mark II’ as he played for me at both clubs,” laughs the Londoner, who spent almost seven years with the Blades. “He was right, in many ways – especially as I had lads like Brian Gayle, Simon Tracey, Alan Cork and John Gannon with me again.
“We were also fortunate to have good characters like Brian Deane, Tony Agana, Bob Booker, Ian Bryson and Carl Bradshaw. The togetherness was brilliant, as was the spirit. Mind, I did have a big problem at one stage.
“There was a bit of a north-south split in the squad and it was starting to get out of hand. I had to sort it out. So, I sent them all to the Brecon Beacons with the army. I didn’t go but I spoke to the army lads before and, more or less, said I wanted to create a bit of conflict.
“The lads were split into teams, a mixture of north and south, and the idea was to put them in a challenging environment where they could only solve problems by working together.
“A rope bridge was involved and the lads managed it. But, while doing so, there was a bit of a bundle and a scrap. A couple of cut lips. The key, though, was that to succeed they all had to pull together, both the lads from the north and the south. Things settled down after that, the atmosphere lifted and we went on a decent run. It was very Wimbledon-like.”
‘The Crazy Gang’, published by Bantam Press, is out now priced £18.99.